There is a saying my friend Keyshawn Johnson likes to use in reference to a coach who thinks the game plan is more important than the players: X’s and O’s mean nothing without the Jimmys and Joes.
It’s a phrase legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal is attributed with coining although the jury is still out on whether or not he was the first. Regardless of its beginnings, the truth embedded is undeniable. Coaches need top talent to win championships but more importantly they need whatever talent they do have to buy into what they’re selling. Without that, it doesn’t really matter what’s on the clipboard.
A glass ceiling exists in the NBA and it has nothing to do with the game plan. It’s about the Jimmys and Joes and whether or not they will buy what Janet is selling.
For the second consecutive year the Big3 championship game will feature a female head coach. Last year, Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman led the Power to victory and this weekend fellow Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie will try to do the same for the Trifecta.
Yes, an argument can be made that a league of retired NBA players playing half court is an entirely different game from the one the men said goodbye to. Nonetheless there’s a chance Leslie’s star player, Big3 MVP Joe Johnson, will find himself back on an NBA roster, so clearly there are things about the Big3 that NBA executives believe translates.
Consider this: In 2009 Lieberman was hired by the Texas Legends of the NBADL to become the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team and a decade later the G League has none.
In 2001, Lisa Boyer became the first woman hired by an NBA team as an assistant coach and today that number is only seven. The consensus is that the Spurs’ Becky Hammon, the first female full-time assistant coach, will be the one to break through.
Yet I can’t help but notice since Hammon led the Spurs to the summer league championship in 2015, the Lakers and Knicks are both on their third head coach over that span. The Memphis Grizzlies are on their fourth. Clearly there have been plenty of openings. It’s the path that is littered with detours.
A recent Pew poll revealed 80% of American women between 18-49 and 60% of men believe it is easier for men to get top leadership positions. What’s interesting is that within that group, nearly 70% of women view gender discrimination as a barrier to leadership while only 35% of men do. So we all know there is a discrepancy here, we just don’t agree on the cause.
As it pertains to the NBA, some would say women need to pay their dues as assistants first. Luke Walton was an assistant for a shorter period of time than Hammon before getting a head coaching job. In fact he’s been hired twice as a head coach since she won the summer league and he’s yet to post a .500 season. Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd walked off the court and was hired as a head coach twice before he became an assistant.
Some would argue, “well at least Kidd played,” to which I would point to the summer of 2013 in which Kidd and eight other rookie head coaches were hired and make note that six of them had no prior NBA playing experience. And three of them— Mike Budenholzer, Mike Malone and Dave Joerger — have been hired as head coaches twice already.
Not to mention the playing careers of Hammon, Leslie and Lieberman are filled with Olympic medals, league championships and MVP trophies. To suggest “they haven’t played the game” as a rationale is akin to dismissing the likes of Serena Williams as a coach for a male player because “she hasn’t played the game.” Which, by the way, is not a stretch considering how few women are hired to coach men on the ATP tour. In fact when Andy Murray hired Amelie Mauresmo in 2014, he was repeatedly asked why, as if hiring a former World No. 1 with a pair of major trophies on the shelf is an odd hire.
But it was.
And we know why.
Just as we know why Billy Donovan and John Beilein can get the call based on their college resumes but Dawn Staley and Muffet McGraw cannot.
It’s not whether or not they know their stuff, it’s whether or not the men — the Jimmys and Joes — will respect what they know. And then there is the question of whether or not it matters enough to an ownership group to want to break that glass ceiling and deal with all of the “distractions” that will come with it.
Not out of a need to be politically correct but in an attempt to hire the right person, and not just the right man for the job.